Free Settler or Felon
Convict and Colonial History

Dr. May Harris

Hunter Valley Medical Practitioner

May Harris, Newcastle's First Female Doctor

In an obituary in 1951, Dr. May Harris (born Mary Hannah), who had died at the Mater Misericordiae Hospital, Newcastle, was described as being a member of one of the oldest and best-known medical families in N.S.W.

She was one of ten children of Dr. John Harris and his wife Jane née Dalton, all of whom had been born in Newcastle. Of May's siblings, there were four sisters, Catherine, Jane and Lillian; and Winifred who died in infancy. May's five brothers, Matthew, Jack, Harry, Bert and Terence all followed in their father's footsteps and took up medical careers, as did May. In 1895 she became Newcastle's first female medical graduate.

John Harris

May's father John Harris was born in County Wexford, Ireland in 1849, the son of Matthew Hughes Harris and his wife Catherine Mary née Moore who immigrated to Australia in 1851 and settled in O'Connell. May's mother was Jane Dalton, the daughter of John Dalton, well known throughout Newcastle as proprietor of a fleet of tug boats. It may have been John Dalton who built the house at 49 Church-street, Newcastle that the Harris family continued to reside in for many years.

Dr. John Harris was the nephew of Dr. Richard Harris who had a long-established medical practice in Newcastle. It was Richard Harris who encouraged John to leave his family in O'Connell and move to Newcastle where he attended Mr. Robert Bishop Theobald's school for six months before becoming dispenser to his uncle.

After receiving qualifications in Scotland and England (MB Aberdeen 1875; ChM Aberdeen 1875; LRCP Edinburgh 1875; LRCS Edinburgh 1875; and MD Aberdeen 1883;)[1], John Harris established his own medical practice at Newcastle which he continued for most of the rest of his life. In 1877-78 he held surgery at the corner of Pitt and Darby Street (Lake Macquarie Road), Newcastle. Later he moved his practice to Watt street said to be on the site of the former Victoria Inn run by James and Peggy McGreavy in the early days. Dr. John Harris was a highly regarded member of the Newcastle community. He was appointed medical officer at the Borehole Colliery and was surgeon to the permanent artillery forces and to the Newcastle Hospital. He was also Government medical officer and examining doctor to the Colliery Proprietors' Association. He was known to be a generous man and his was an open house where a great number of people enjoyed his hospitality[2]. Locally he became known as 'Dr. John'.

May Harris

Mary Hannah (May) Harris was born at Newcastle in 1872. In 1891 she passed her examinations at Sydney University with distinction and departed for Scotland and London, where four years later she qualified as Licentiate of the Royal College of Surgeons (Edin), Licentiate of the Royal College of Physicians (Edin), and Licentiate of the Faculty of Physicians and Surgeons (Lond.)

In July 1895, John Harris received a cable from London, stating that his daughter May, had successfully passed her final examinations in surgery and medicine, and would leave for Australia on the following Friday. [3] She arrived back in Newcastle in September 1895 to great acclaim. A reception was held in the Masonic hall and bunting was displayed throughout the streets and on the shipping in the harbor. Alderman W. B. Sharp, delivered an address, in which he congratulated Dr. Harris on her safe return and upon her success, and expressed the pride which was felt by the citizens of Newcastle at the distinction gained by a young native of the city. He wished her prosperity in the profession of which her father was so distinguished a member. He then, on behalf of the women of Newcastle, presented Dr. Harris with a framed address, the work of Mr. Alfred Sharp, and Mrs. Mansey handed to the talented young lady a charming bouquet.[4]

Dr. May Harris joined her father's private practice and as her father had done, she carried out her rounds on horse-back.

Difficulties within the Profession

She was fortunate in being able to work with her father. It wasn't easy for female medicos in these years. Eleven years later, in 1906, there were only about 20 - 30 female doctors registered to practice in the whole of New South Wales. Women seeking to enter the medical profession came up against a long held view of the in-ability of women to perform medical duties; and the doors of medical institutions in New South Wales were still fairly firmly closed to women graduates around the turn of the century [5], although they were more accepted into private practices. However times were changing and in what essentially became a battle over women's rights, a controversial situation arose when another medical practitioner, Jessie Aspinall was denied confirmation of an appointment as junior resident officer by the Board of the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital. This caused a public outcry. Jessie’s father, women’s organisations, the press and the public at large all joined forces in her support. A photograph of May Harris and other female medical graduates was published at the time as part of an article entitled 'Women Doctors and their Position' describing the difficulties surrounding attitudes towards female medical graduates.[6]

Bert Harris

Not long after the outbreak of World War 1 May's brother Hubert (known as Bert) applied for a Commission with the Medical Corps A. I. F. He was accepted and appointed Captain and assigned to the General Reinforcements, Egypt and Europe. Bert was 26 years old and a widower when he enlisted in July 1915 ; his young daughter Evangeline was left in the care of their sister Mary Catherine (Kate).

Bert wrote a letter home in July 1917 by which he made light of his service and circumstances. Still the family must have been desperately worried for his safety:
Our success on this front and the advent of the U.S.A. into this shindy, will probably keep Russia steady. I suppose you have read in the papers about the prolonged winter we have been experiencing. Even now, frost and snow are the order of the day, combined with rain and bitterly cold winds." Writing from the Australasian Club, London April 30th, Dr. Harris ' says : " As you will see by the above address, I am on leave as again. I fancy they gave me leave as a sort of solace for an attack of measles I had some time back. Well, London seems the same place as of yore, with the exception that fewer eligible men are seen in civilian clothes. I think it was about time that some of them I saw in November were roped in by the military. The papers here are continually asking why a lot more young civilians are not made to learn how to fire a gun and fix a bayonet, and certainly even now one sees many hale and healthy young chaps in civilian clothes, who should be in khaki. However, I believe there is to be another come-out shortly. I received an invitation from the Countess of Harrowby, to call on her, and she would help me to pass my leave by introducing me to friends in the country. It was very kind of her, but you know what one most needs, is rest and quiet. These kindly people bustle you all over the place, so I wrote a polite little not of thanks and refusal. I just like to loaf around on my own, and mentally assimilate all I see. There is no sound of guns here. The quiet is just glorious." Under date May 2, he further writes : "My leave is now drawing to a close, and very soon I will again be 'somewhere in France.' It is not much of an address climatically, or from a point of view of exactness. When I first came to this club, it struck me that the waitresses seem rather superior sorts of persons. I inquired, and found that they were voluntary war-time workers. One of them is Miss Dangar, of Warialda, one of the Windeyer girls is another, and there is also a French countess among them. Needless to say, we are all in a bit of a state of awe, and leave no tips under the plate! I have met quite a number of old Sydney Uni. lads here this time, and most all of them have been from my year or the year behind [7]. Bert was promoted to Major, however by September 1918 he was declared unfit for duty and was eventually sent home suffering from Effort Syndrome [8].

Spanish Influenza

At the height of the Spanish Influenza pandemic in January 1919, Newcastle residents were thoroughly alert to the peril that threatened the city and it was announced that inoculations would be provided at a depot at St. Philip's Hall. When the depot opened there were five hundred people waiting to receive their shot. Doctors and officials were in attendance, however it was revealed that the vaccine promised from Sydney Health Department had not arrived. About seventy vaccines were obtained from Newcastle hospital and May Harris provided some more from her private practice, about 50 vaccines. Vaccines continued to be provided in private practices and by intense pressure from medical officers another 2000 doses from the public Health Department were eventually sent to Newcastle to the relief of residents.[9]

Industrial Experience

May succeeded her father as medical adviser to the northern colliery proprietors and earned for herself a world-wide reputation for her work on the prevention and treatment of industrial diseases, particularly those affecting miners. In 1923 the Bellbird mining disaster occurred at Cessnock when the lives of twenty-one miners were lost. May was in attendance at the inquest into the disaster on the day miner William Hughes gave evidence, assisting him in his distress afterwards. She was there at the re-opening of the colliery in 1924 and waited in a nearby office with stretchers and instruments as the volunteers, especially equipped to resist poisonous fumes and with canaries at hand, removed the canvas covering from the sealed mine and descended into the depths. The men ventured 200 feet into the mine which they declared safe; there were no signs of rock falls or poisonous gas and nothing unusual was found, so in the end no medical assistance was needed [10]. She was again at the mine in June 1924 when the body of hero John Brown, former mine manager, was brought to the surface [11]. Later May was a committee member appointed by the Northern Colliery Proprietors Association to distribute a sum of £2649 pounds amongst the families of the victims of the disaster [12]. In December 1924 two more bodies were recovered and Dr. May Harris and Dr. Ethel Byrne were in attendance to examine the remains when they were brought to the surface [13]


May's father Dr. John Harris died in April 1923 just a few months prior to the above disaster. His wife Jane Harris continued to take part in community events including the first Newcastle Ladies' Cycling Club which was formed in 1897 for the purpose of enabling ladies to enjoy afternoon and moonlight runs in company. Jane was President of the Club and May's sister Kate Harris was treasurer [14]. Jane Harris was said to be a most charitable woman and was an original member of the Red Cross Society and, with Mrs. J. C. Reid; Mrs. A. Goninan, and others, carried on useful work during the memorable years of the war, and afterwards. Jane Harris née Dalton died in 1932 at the Church-street house. [15]

Fifty Years

May continued to live in the family home with her two sisters Lillian (Lilla), a musician, and Catherine (Kate). She celebrated 50 years of medical work in Newcastle in September 1945. The details of her successful life were reported in the Newcastle Morning Herald at the time. [16]


May Harris died in 1951. Her lifelong friend and close associate Mr. W. J. Cleaves, of Sparke, Helmore and Withycombe (solicitors), described her as a wonderful friend to thousands. He said it would never be known how much good she had done, often anonymously and always unostentatiously. [17]

In 1953, two years after her death May's sisters decided to leave the family home which was put up for auction. It was described at the time as having front and return side verandahs and balconies, a spacious entrance hall, double lounge room, dining room, breakfast room, kitchen, laundry, store rooms, 5 bedrooms, tiled bathroom, separate shower room and two toilets and two garages. The land had a frontage of 50 feet to Church-street, with a depth of 221 feet, with access from a lane at rear. The grounds were appropriately laid out in lawns, paths and gardens [18]

Notes and Links

Children of John and Jane Harris:

Mary Hannah born 1872 (May). Died 1951

Catherine b. 1874 (Kate). Died 3 September 1956. Buried at Sandgate Cemetery

Matthew Hughes born 1876. Died in Sydney. He had practised in Goulburn where he had retired. His only son, on enlistment in WW2 was on the medical staff of the Royal Newcastle Hospital was only 27 years of age when he was killed on active service in the Islands

John James Dalton born 1877 (Jack). Bacteriologist. Died at Bendigo in 1947

Winifred M. born 1879 died 1879

Henry Joseph b. 1880 (Harry). Died 1962

Jane Maud Mary b. 1883

Lillian Mary Rose b. 1887 (Lillah). Musician/ pianoforte. In 1920 the Newcastle Chamber Music Society entertained at Miss Lillah Harris' studio. In 1958 resided 12 Anzac Parade, Newcastle. Died 1972

Hubert Richard Joseph b. 1889 (Bert). After WW1 he resided at Armidale where he was registered as a Medical Practitioner. Died 1968

Walter Terence born 1893 (Terry)

Notable group of Hospital workers


[1] Pioneer Medical Index online

[2] Newcastle Morning Herald 18 April 1923

[3] Newcastle Morning Herald 29 July 1895

[4] The Daily Telegraph 23 September 1895

[5] The University of Sydney School of Medicine Online Museum

[6] The Sydney Mail and NSW Advertiser

[7] Newcastle Morning Herald 25 July 1917

[8] Discovering Anzacs.

[9] Newcastle Morning Herald 30 January 1919

[10] Newcastle Sun 5 May 1924

[11] Newcastle Sun 19 June 1924

[12] Newcastle Morning Herald 15 January 1923

[13] Cessnock Eagle 16 December 1924

[14] Newcastle Morning Herald 9 September 1897

[15] Newcastle Morning Herald 16 January 1932

[16] Newcastle Morning Herald 4 September 1945

[17] The Newcastle Sun 16 October 1951

[18] Newcastle Morning Herald 3 October 1953